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Review: ‘You Hurt My Feelings’: Bruised egos, rueful comedy and … socks, lots and lots of socks

woman leans against her hand at a bar, looking bored
Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in “You Hurt My Feelings.”
(Jeong Park/A24)
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Filmmaker Nicole Holofcener has fashioned a wonderful career mining her characters’ angst and annoyances. So when in her latest wry comedy, “You Hurt My Feelings,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Beth lets out a sigh at an anniversary dinner with her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), and beams, “We’re so lucky,” we can be fairly certain that Beth’s contentment isn’t going to last much past the meal.

Everything we learn about Beth and Don’s marriage in the film’s opening half-hour, from the thoughtful way they treat each other to the way that their open displays of affection (and the way they share an ice cream cone) grosses out their adult son, Eliott (Owen Teague), seems to confirm the proclaimed good fortune. Professionally, they’re both sort of successful. Beth makes a living as a writer (mostly; she also teaches) and Don has been a therapist for many years.

But there’s also the sense that by saying these words out loud, Beth is, to a small degree, trying to talk herself into believing them. Yes, “You Hurt My Feelings” explores the incident of its title and the risks and limits of total honesty in a relationship. But it’s also a funny and incisive look at middle-age malaise, a time when potential has been replaced by plateaus and one might take an inordinate amount of pleasure in the comfort that comes from a well-made pair of socks.

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The hurting of feelings happens inside Paragon Sports, a Manhattan institution where Don and struggling actor Mark (Arian Moayed) are lost in thought, shopping for socks. So … many … socks. Beth and her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins), who’s married to Mark, decide to surprise them and also learn how the men could possibly spend the better part of an hour debating the merits of footwear. Approaching, they hear Don telling Mark that he’s dreading reading yet another draft of Beth’s new book — a novel that he has assured her, more than once, is wonderful.

Beth is crushed. Her first book, a memoir, sold modestly. None of the students in the writing class she leads have even heard of it. So her self-esteem is already shaky. And now this betrayal. “I’m never going to be able to look him in the face ever again,” Beth tells Sarah, spiraling. “How can he respect me if he doesn’t like my work?” She’s self-aware enough to know that she needs approval, particularly from the man she loves and, up to this moment, has trusted.

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Holofcener treats Beth’s wounded ego seriously, but also with a light touch, never losing sight of the comic potential that comes from piercing the vanity of the privileged. She has long excelled, in movies like “Lovely and Amazing,” “Walking and Talking” and “Enough Said,” at creating smart, self-aware women and then putting them in situations that make you laugh, make you wince and hurt your heart.

In Louis-Dreyfus, who starred opposite James Gandolfini in “Enough Said,” Holofcener has found the ideal collaborator, an actor gloriously adept at wigging out but also capable of conveying vulnerability with a persuasive honesty. Louis-Dreyfus’ work in these two movies has been nothing short of revelatory.

For a film that runs a tight 93 minutes, “You Hurt My Feelings” manages, through a parade of deftly constructed scenes, to introduce us to a world of characters that, by the story’s end, we feel we know intimately. Holofcener makes great use of David Cross and Amber Tamblyn as a bickering couple that Don is treating, quite unsuccessfully, it should be noted. Watkins and Louis-Dreyfus share a superb rapport as sisters and the great Jeannie Berlin has two perfect scenes playing their headstrong mother, a woman who possesses a peculiarly optimistic vision for the ways that potato salad can be carried.

They’re all nursing grievances, some petty, some valid. (Don really does seem to be off his game as a therapist.) The main quartet — Don and Beth, Mark and Sarah — are a little adrift, trying to stay engaged, but sometimes losing the battle to keep apathy at bay. By the film’s end, some lessons will have been learned, though Holofcener proffers them with such disarming skill that you may not be aware you absorbed them. It feels like a magic trick.

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'You Hurt My Feelings'

Rating: R, for language

Running time: One hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Starts May 26 in general release

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